Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Fiber Optic installation adds tools to teachers’ trade

IMG_0560Installation of the region’s first fiber optic network that will connect municipalities, hospitals, schools and emergency services to broadband speeds unavailable before is near completion.

In Johnson County, large spools of orange tubing that contain the fiber optic cable have been visible on the side of State Route 37 over the past year as crews connected area anchor institutions to a network which includes 22 other Southern Illinois counties.

“It’s a backbone project that will enable high speed data transfer where it has not been available before; or it is making drastic improvements to the capabilities [already available] in those areas,” Mike Phalin, Clearwave VP of Sales & Marketing said Tuesday. “We’re hoping to have that all completed here very soon, within the month. We’re really at the tail end of this.”

The installation of fiber optic cable throughout the southern region of Illinois is part of a national project to bring internet speeds of at least 100 megabits per second and high-speed wireless to K-12 schools across the nation.

Clearwave Communications out of Harrisburg received more than $40 million in funding through a grant as part of the nation’s Broadband Technology Opportunities Program.  The program provided nearly $4 billion in funding to an estimated 230 projects nationwide with 116 of the projects consisting of building fiber optic networks such as the one nearing completion in Southern Illinois.

One of the underlying goals of the program was to focus on improving broadband access in rural America.

“This was a goal to level the playing field, to make that broadband, which is now as important as [such utilities] as lights and water, available to as many people as possible,” Phalin said.

Rural areas, especially economically distressed rural areas, would continue to suffer from missing opportunities that metropolitan and affluent areas have because they have better access to broadband, Phalin said.  The grant program estimates that nearly 10,000 schools in 44 states will have access to speeds of at least 100 megabits once projects are completed.  In Vienna and Goreville, those speeds are already under utilization.

“When I started in 2004 we had 1.5MB, in 2008 we increased that to 9MB,” Vienna High School technology director Joshua Stafford said.  “The increase to 9MB was a great help, but still was not getting the job done for our very progressive teaching staff.”

Stafford said the school went online with fiber optic last week and for the past few days has already begun putting the extra bandwidth to work.  The school is connected with data transfer speeds outlined in the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program allowing its staff to bring educational opportunities into the classroom its previous network could not handle.

“With the new broadband connection, DVD/VCR or any other collection of instructional video resources will instantly become obsolete as teachers will now be able to use live, instant video feeds on every topic imaginable to provide a state-of-the-art engaged learning experience that those of us who grew up in the chalkboard era will never be able to comprehend,” Dr. Steve Webb, Goreville Community Unit School District #1 superintendent said.  “It is a very exciting time.”

While Johnson County anchor institutions, such as its sheriff’s office, courthouse and schools are connected to the fiber optic network, area businesses will also have opportunities to connect to fiber as well. Shawnee Survey & Consulting, Inc., based in Vienna, recently said the fiber optic connection would make it possible to compete with out-of-state firms for projects that require the transfer of large volumes of data.

Meanwhile, fiber optic to residential homes is not part of the plan.

“Getting this type of network into the area will improve upon the ability for other ‘last mile’ technologies to deliver better quality services to residential users,” Clearwave’s Phalin said, adding that installation of fiber optic to a home is cost prohibited.

So while internet users in Johnson County may not have access to download or stream the entire library of Netflix movies on 100 different screens all at the same time in their home, just yet, students of Vienna and Goreville will be capable of exploring their futures without the buffering of yesterday’s internet.

“Vienna High School has had a long running culture that clearly identifies the need for students to be equipped with technology and critical thinking skills in order to be productive citizens in the current globalized job market,” Stafford said, adding that the new fiber, the next generation of the Internet, will expand students’ opportunities to be competitors in the job market ahead.

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